Some Thoughts on ‘Silver Spoon’

            I have recently begun to seriously explore the wonderful world of anime and manga. And one of my favorites so far has been Silver Spoon, which I am currently in the process of reading after having finished the anime (which, unfortunately, only covers about the first half to two-thirds of the manga).

The premise is that Hachiken Yugo is a first year high schooler in Hokkaido. Despite working himself half to death, he didn’t do very well on his final exams for middle school, much to the disappointment of his terrifying father. Seeking to get away from home, he chooses the one high school in the region that has a dormitory: Yezu Agricultural School. He figures this will be a perfect fit; he’ll be the only city boy among a bunch of farmers, and the school curriculums in math, science, and so on are tiny, while agricultural textbooks are just a lot of memorization. So, he’ll get away from his unbearable home life and ensure he gets top-grades at the same time!

The one thing he forgot to consider is that this is an agricultural school, and most of the work is practical. Meaning he suddenly finds himself having to get up at five AM to do farm chores on top of studying, while he also discovers that farm life is much, much more complicated and demanding than he ever expected.

Oh, and he discovers that one of his classmates, Mikage Aki, is really, really cute.

 

See?

The result of all that is a truly charming, hilarious, and heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale of a boy growing to maturity in a completely alien environment. It reminds me in some ways of All Creatures Great and Small, the British show about the life and times of a young vet in Yorkshire, only Yugo starts out as a complete newcomer to farm life, even to the point of being surprised at how big the cows are dawhen he first arrives. We, the audience, get to experience all that growth and learning and the shattering of preconceptions along with him (the artist, Hiromu “Fullmetal Alchemist” Arakawa,  grew up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, so the details of farm life have the ring of authenticity to them). Over the course of the story, he grows attached to one of the pigs (named ‘Pork Bowl’) and then has to deal with sending it to be slaughtered, he joins the equestrian club (mostly because Aki is in it) and learns how to deal with horses, spends the summer working on a dairy farm, makes home-made pizza (since he’s the only one at school who lives within delivery distance, he’s the only one who knows what it’s supposed to taste like), and organizes the school festival. During the course of all this, he not only learns about farm work, but becomes one of the most popular boys in school and something of a natural leader for his outsider perspective and willingness to do just about anything for anyone.

At the same time, though, he struggles with massive confidence issues (courtesy of his perfectionist father) and with trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He soon discovers that he’s quite literally the only person in his class who doesn’t have a plan for his life, and though most of his classmates’ plans involve simply taking over their family farms, he nevertheless is jealous of their apparent security. Though this, he eventually discovers, is much more uncertain than it first appears.

One of the first things that struck me about this series was how, well, nice everyone was. This is the first school story I can recall where there are no ‘bully’ characters: everyone in Yugo’s class is decent to him in their own way. It takes almost eighty chapters before one of them develops any kind of rivalry with him (and it doesn’t really hurt their friendship), and even longer for anything like a school bully to appear (from a rival school at a tournament, and he gets hilariously sent packing almost the moment he appears). Yugo’s father is the only really antagonistic character present, and he has very little screen time, though…well, more on him later.

But though they’re all decent people, there’s plenty of character and conflict to be had among them, and they all have flaws, but the flaws are presented as just a matter of being human. For instance, there’s the domineering, egg-shaped Tamako, who is extremely blunt and at one point announces to her parents that she loves money more than anything and is planning a takeover of their farm. In any western story, this would mark her as a villain; here it’s played entirely for laughs as just part of her eccentric charm (“We must crush her before she grows too powerful!” “You are welcome to try!”). Or there’s Tokiwa, the heir to the poultry farm, who is both the worst student in class (he’s thrilled when he gets a 10 out of 100 score on his math test because “I never got double-digits before!”) and has an unfortunate tendency to spread rumors based on very little information, resulting in Yugo being hauled before the dean twice on rumors of illicit sexual relations with his classmates (“I was talking about a pig!” “…You got a pig pregnant?”). Again, this is played entirely for comedy, as there was no malice in Tokiwa’s actions and the misunderstanding is cleared up as soon as Yugo is able to explain himself.

As the latter indicates, Silver Spoon is as, well, frank as I find a lot of Japanese fiction to be. It isn’t really crude, but they don’t shy away from either the reality of farm life (poops and live births abound, and we visit a slaughterhouse in one chapter) or of adolescence. There’s a bit where Yugo is told about how you can tell the age of a cow because the younger ones have smaller udders while he absentmindedly eyes Aki. Another bit has her asking him to help her find a bra: “it’s big and black…” Turns out it’s a cow bra (to prevent her from treading on her udder) But the interesting thing is that, to me at least, this sort of thing feels ‘cleaner’ than the sexual content found in most western stories, maybe because here they mostly play it for a joke, as an honest depiction of what teenagers are like, while in western fiction there’s often a degree of either self-importance (“look how daring I am!”) or crudity about it that makes it feel, well, more adolescent. I had a similar reaction to the sexual humor in Naruto: when Naruto is transported at the idea of spying on the girl’s side of the bath and then has nightmares of what Sakura would do to him if he did, it feels like the joke is about how teenagers think about sex, rather than being itself an excuse to talk about sex. It’s an interesting tonal phenomenon that I’d like to explore further (ugh, there’s no way to make that sentence proof against misunderstanding, is there?).

Another thing that has struck me about a lot of anime that I’ve seen; the characters often feel much more distinct and human than a lot of their western counterparts. They’re less likely to be built to a ‘type’ (the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, etc.) than to simply be constructed as individuals. Like Aki’s childhood friend, Ichiro, who plays baseball and often rubs Yugo wrong. He’s not a ‘jock,’ he’s a young man with very specific goals from a specific situation, and how that situation and those goals play out forms a crucial subplot.

Likewise, the story follows its own beats, and part of that is that things don’t work out according to a formula. The above mentioned subplot involves a game of baseball with the future of several beloved characters riding on it coming down to one final play…which they don’t make, leaving them to have to face up to failure and heartbreak and try to figure out where to go from there. Pork Bowl is indeed turned into pork despite Yugo’s attachment to him, because that’s what pigs are raised for. Bad things happen and you can’t always do anything about them is practically a theme of the story, though also that you might be able to do more about it than you think you can.

All this leads to one of the big moments of the series, where Yugo proves himself a hero, not by saving the day or averting disaster, but simply by insisting that he will always being there for someone, whatever happens and however much it hurts.

On a practical level, the fact that the story is willing to break the audience’s heart, to show things not working out even when they had to work out means that we’re hooked with every subsequent challenge and crisis, because we know there’s no guarantee that it will have a happy ending. Yugo’s team might lose the equestrian tournament. Yugo might not get the loan to start his business. Aki might not pass her college entrance exam. Nothing is guaranteed, however badly you want it, which means you just how to read on and to find out what happens. Much like life.

He ends up eating that pig

By the way, the romance here is fantastic. Like everything else, it feels very honest and very sweet, as Yugo and Aki develop an easy-going, familiar attachment while he struggles with a massive crush on her that is complicated by his confidence issues. She soon realizes that she likes him as well, but is a little clueless about romance and is dubious that someone like him – a comparatively well off, educated, and intelligent city boy – would seriously be interested in a book-dumb girl from a debt-ridden family farm. This leads to a lot of delightful moments, where he way overthinks things and she misses the point entirely (such as when her roommates have to explicitly spell out the fact that him asking her to go somewhere, just the two of them, was him asking her on a date. This after her acceptance resulted in his feelings being shown in one of the most over-the-top and hilarious splash-pages you will ever see). But also the way he steps up and tries to look out for her, to encourage her, to be there for her lets us appreciate that they do really make a wonderful couple (among other things, he teasingly tries to get her to not worry about the thick rural accent she self-consciously tries to hide).

The most pressing obstacle is her hilariously overprotective father, who scares Yugo almost as much as his own father (at one point he imagines them having a kaiju battle). The very first time they meet, he takes one look at Yugo and shouts, “I DO NOT APPROVE!” (this long before Yugo has even worked up the nerve to ask Aki out). Yet, he’s shown to be otherwise a very good, if grim, man, generous with his stock and listening honestly to his daughter when she tries to talk to him about her life.

Yugo’s own father is somewhat of a different matter; a brutally demanding, imposing figure with extreme perfectionist tendencies, who expects his sons to excel and is not shy about expressing his anger (in a cold, dismissive fashion) when they don’t. We get a sense of the kind of life Yugo had when he’s staying with Aki’s family over the summer and accidentally gets lost in the bear infested woods. When he finally calls them from another farm, his only thought is that they’ll be furious with him for missing out on work; the idea that they were more worried about his safety never entered his head. At one point Yugo compares his father’s attitude to a farmer’s toward livestock; deliver results, or you are worthless. More amusingly, when Yugo’s father visits the school, the students immediately assume he’s a Yakuza and begin using his picture as a warding charm.

Yet, even Yugo’s father isn’t simply a caricature. He’s a very unpleasant figure, but he shows flashes of humanity, as when, upon receiving Yugo’s business proposal in the mail, he immediately sits down to go over it rather than simply rejecting it out of hand (he does reject it, but he gives it his full attention first). Or when he tries to avoid seeing his son after watching him compete in an equestrian tournament, knowing that he would only ruin the moment for him. Likewise his mother, though rather weak, is shown to be honestly concerned for her son and hurt that he never calls or writes them while at school: something Yugo’s classmates criticize him for.

In summary, the characters are played as human, with all that implies. They’re sometimes over-the-top and eccentric, but they have real emotions and reactions.

Another favorite character is the school principal; a tiny, cartoonish little man who seems to appear all over school, and yet who nevertheless proves a font of real wisdom and sage advice, as well as an effective teacher. His speech to the graduating first years, regarding the titular silver spoon, is a beautiful piece of work, dealing with the meaning of both agriculture and learning. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of genuine wisdom to be had throughout; about looking reality in the face, but not giving up on your dreams, about accepting that there are things you will never perfectly understand, but you should always try to understand, about hardship and maturity and dedication. It’s also a fascinating look into where our food comes from, and the hard, grinding, often heartbreaking work that goes into it (the insight into cheese-making is just one example). Characters discuss questions of efficiency versus animal welfare, but they don’t come up with pat answers; only saying, “these are the things we have to work with” and inviting both each other and the audience to decide for themselves. Actually, that’s another bit of wisdom it offers; don’t be afraid not to have answers, as long as you’re still trying to understand.

This sort of mature thinking, rich characterization, honesty, and intelligent plotting, blended with humor and charm, is something to study and treasure. It’s just a wonderful piece of work, and I’m not even done with it (actually, I don’t know if the manga is finished). This is the kind of writing that I’d like to aspire to, and I highly recommend it.

The Nuances of How Superpowered Characters Are Received at Home

The irreplaceable Caroline Furlong has another insightful essay in her series on writing superpowered characters; this one is on how they should be viewed in their own world. In it, she hits several points of nuance that the vast majority of modern writers (especially those working in Hollywood or in the comics industry) seem incapable of comprehending: such as that maybe, just maybe, ordinary people have reasons apart from unthinking prejudice and bigotry for fearing a man who can destroy a city single-handedly:

The main reason they must not do this is simple: power of any kind will, if used for selfish motives, corrupt the wielder and lead him/her to the Dark Side. The mild illustration of a teenage couple breaking up due to the machinations of jealous peers should make this clear. Let us say that the girl in this relationship hears a false rumor about her boyfriend making fun of her with his friends, while he is lied to and told that she is cheating on him with another boy. In many situations like this, after breaking up, the two do all sorts of petty things to avenge themselves on one another for the “betrayal” they experienced.

Even without the addition of extraordinary powers, we can see that the odds of this scenario having a happy finale are not good. But take a step back and ask yourself this, future writers: “What happens if the girl discovers she is a pyrokinetc (a fire manipulator and/or generator)? What happens if the boy realizes he can move things with his mind, hear the thoughts of others, and/or compel them to do something? What does their desire to gain vengeance on one another for these perceived betrayals look like then?”

The probable answers to these inquiries are unpleasant, to say the least. If the girl has pyrokinetic powers, she might decide to use her gift to cause bodily or financial harm to her ex-boyfriend. If the boy is telepathic and telekinetic, then he could force his ex-girlfriend to walk off a bridge downtown as “punishment” for her infidelity. These are horrific uses for paranormal gifts, but they illustrate the temptations that these one or two enhanced characters will face in such a situation.

She then goes on to explore ways different stories have explored that mistrust and uncertainty in clever and creative ways. Definitely read the whole thing! 

For my own part, I would make it a rule to never play the ‘unthinking bigotry’ card, much less the ‘they fear what they don’t understand’ one. For one thing, it doesn’t ring true to me (even the most absurd bigotries have some rational basis), and for another, I think it is a very dangerous mindset to encourage; if people adopt it, it leads them to shut their ears to what others actually have to say and to slap the ‘bigot’ label on anyone who says anything they don’t like. Thus, ironically, this mode of attacking prejudice only encourages it. Far better to give the justification a fair hearing and show why and how it is wrong, or at least how it isn’t the whole story, then to dumb things down to pure, unthinking resentment. Besides, exploring ideas and settling true from false makes for a much better story than just “these people are good and innocent; these are evil and ignorant, and that’s terrible. Be grateful we are not like them.”

 

Do the Powers Make the Hero?

The Irreplaceable Caroline Furlong writes an excellent piece about whether the superhuman powers of a hero is what makes him a hero worth rooting for, or not:

Due to the numerous ways extraordinary faculties can be introduced into a tale, there are several conditions that an author must consider when creating powered protagonists. In today’s post, we are focusing on the most important one: whether or not strange abilities make the lead character a hero. Is it his special powers that make the sci-fi/fantasy protagonist a champion? Or are the forces that he wields less important than the character himself?

The answer to the first question should be no, because a protagonist who is only memorable for his special talents or whizz-bang gadgets is not a character. He is, rather, a prop; a device that demonstrates the author’s cool ideas in a series of happy (or unhappy) accidents. No one enjoys watching a prop being moved around the stage by the play’s director, even if he is honestly trying to save the show. They will feel sympathy for him, but nothing else. In the same manner, no one will respect or admire a writer who cannot create characters who are alive.

In order to illustrate this fact, let us compare Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: The Dark World, which each have Rey and Thor as the respective lead characters. In the sequel Star Wars films Rey commands nearly cosmic Force powers; she can use the Force with almost no training whatsoever. Thor, on the other hand, is – well, the god of thunder. He can raise storms at will, he is the strongest Asgardian still living, he can survive explosive decompression and hard vacuum, and he is relatively indestructible.

Read the whole thing!

As a side note, I really love this poster of Thor: the Dark World. It really captures the sense of the heroism and adventure that Thor ought to be about.

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On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Thoughts on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special

Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.

The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.

The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.

Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).

Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.

All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.

Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.

The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.

On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).

This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).

Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.

Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.

All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.

So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.

Thoughts on ‘Star Wars’

I have decided to do a total re-watch of the Star Wars films: all ten films (plus the Holiday Special) in order of release. Partly this is out of curiosity, partly because I’ve determined to finally see The Last Jedi now that it’s on Netflix and I want to be fully prepared. Also, I only just realized upon beginning this project how long it’s been since I’ve seen these films: the original trilogy, of course, I saw many times as a kid, and more than once in subsequent years, but I haven’t been back to it for quite a while. As for the prequels, besides The Phantom Menace, I’ve only seen them once, when they first came out. Ditto for The Force Awakens. Rogue One I’ve seen once in its entirety and then when I rewatched it I skipped around to the highlights.

I actually have copies of the original trilogy in their original cuts: they’re not ideally formatted, but they are pretty much what the original theater audiences saw in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively, so that’s what I’ll be watching, aiming to see them as much as possible as they were originally viewed.

With that out of the way, here is my impression of the original Star War, now retitled A New Hope.

This may be a controversial opinion, but it’s a really, really good film: just a very enjoyable, action-packed adventure, bursting with creativity. You could, and I’m sure many do, give a whole course on storytelling just from this one film. The opening scene alone is a brilliant piece of visual exposition, letting us know at once who are the good guys, who the bad guys, and how badly the good guys are out-gunned, all without a single line of dialogue.

The plot (which you all know, so I won’t rehash it), is simple and easy to follow; there is a clear goal (destroy the Death Star), a clear condition (get the plans in R2 to the rebels), and a clear consequence for failure (whole planets will be blown up, and a tyrannical Empire will use the threat of more destruction to maintain power). This latter point helps show the thoughtfulness that goes into even such a simple plot as this: the evil plan of the Empire is actually pretty well thought out. A few quick lines of dialogue establish that there is an Imperial Senate that thus far has kept at least a theoretical lid on the Emperor’s power. Later we hear the Emperor has dissolved the senate, gambling that the awful threat of the Death Star will be enough to keep the galaxy in order. That’s a perfectly reasonable set of actions: it’s not just being evil for evil’s sake, but doing evil things as part of a larger goal. It also puts the heroes’ struggle in the larger context that this won’t just remove a single terrible threat, but will also loosen the Emperor’s grip on the galaxy.

Again, all of that is established in about two or three scenes and a few brief lines of dialogue. Moreover, none of it is really necessary to understand in order to follow the film: it’s enough to know that the Death Star is evil and must be destroyed, but paying closer attention reveals deeper levels to the plot. I don’t mean that it’s brilliant or intricate, but it is sturdy and well-put together, and holds up well under scrutiny.

One thing that struck me this time around was how good some of the acting is, especially from veterans like Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness. Look at the subtle change of expression on Guinness’s face when Luke first mentions the name “Obi Wan Kenobi.” Or watch as he silently formulates a plan of action after hearing Leia’s message. It really is kind of amazing that this film, which was, after all, little more than a mid-budget B-picture has two such established powerhouse actors in key roles. Though, in hindsight, it’s no more amazing than anything else about the history of this film.

On the other hand, the three leads are generally no more than serviceable, with Harrison Ford probably being the best and Carrie Fisher being the most awkward (as others have noted, she seems to switch accents at several points in the film). Mark Hamill, I find, starts out the film a little stiff and whiney, but his performance improves as his character grows in confidence and begins to take a more active role in the story. But no one gives a bad performance; they are all serviceable at the very least, and it helps that, one, their characters are all very vivid and well-written, and two, that the three actors have fantastic chemistry with each other. Basically, they all have a lot of personality, and that compensates for some of the weaknesses in the acting. For instance, I love how, when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell disguised in armor, her reaction – while expecting her imminent execution – is to cock a hand on her hip and sneer at his height. Desperate though her position is, she retains her every inch of her poise. This is not just entertaining, but good character writing: she’s a princess, and so has considerable natural authority. We’ll…come back to that issue in a later entry.

I also really like the bit where Han shoots Greeto the alien gangster, preceding it with a sarcastic, though vitriolic quip (yes, upon revisiting the scene, I have to say having Han shoot first is necessary for the scene). Again, it establishes that he is a rather dark character at this point: he lives among people who stab each other in the back at the first opportunity, and he’s perfectly willing to stab them before they can stab him. This stands in stark contrast to the Rebellion characters, who willingly risk their lives for each other and their cause. Again, the scene works on a surface level of establishing that Han is deep in debt and all-but desperate, as well as being a somewhat shady, dangerous character in his own right, though not to the point that we can’t sympathize with him (no one’s going to cry for Greeto), but when you think about it it also provides insights into the motivations and progression of the characters. Again, the film works fine on a surface level, but gains strength from closer scrutiny.

Another thing that stood out to me was just how grounded the world felt, despite the fantastic technology. Surfaces are grimy, dented, and covered in dust. The environments are often dimly lit and full of miscellaneous, but purposeful dressing. There’s realistic-sounding military chatter coming over the soundtrack in the Death Star, and later on the rebel base. The world of the film feels real, even when it doesn’t necessarily look real. Little details like the Stormtroopers chattering with each other, or a pair of low-life aliens having an unintelligible, yet obviously heated discussion in the corner of the cantina, contribute to making this feel like an actual world, where things are going on outside of the view of the camera.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the Force, which is the final element that ties it all together. I won’t go into the question of what is the Force: part of the strength of the film is that it leaves the matter vague. What matters, to my mind, is that there is an element of magic and mysticism in this technologically-driven space adventure, and with it almost an element of religion. This gives the whole story and the actions of the characters greater weight than they would in a straight sci-fi space opera. Their choices don’t just matter with regards to the events of the world, but matter in a larger, more fundamental sense, and doing things one way or another can have unexpected consequences based on their essential moral nature.

On this viewing, I also noticed a few more flaws: the editing is sometimes kinda choppy, with overly-quick scenes and transitions that don’t quite match up. The effects, even absent the special edition upgrade, have aged extremely well; I especially love the model work on the ships, and of course the crazy creativity in all the aliens and robots that fill out the screen in the first act. As others have commented, the final assault on the Death Star goes on a little long, though I don’t really mind that because it both serves to ramp up the tension and because the organization and plan of the assault actually plays out like a legitimate military operation. For me, the biggest problem with the sequence is that it’s about here that the film’s effects budget starts to run out. It still looks pretty good, all things considered, but they’re obviously struggling to work with what they have, and there are some very awkward edits, while Darth Vader’s fighter in particular doesn’t sit well in the scene. Though I don’t suppose anyone really cares because the storytelling in the climax, with Luke hearing Ben’s voice, turning off his computer, and Han joining the battle at the last minute, is just so strong.

Of course, I’m not saying anything a thousand other people haven’t said over the past forty years. Star Wars is one of those movies that just flat-out works on almost every level, for almost every audience. A full description of its virtues would fill a whole book (and I’m sure has on many occasions). Even viewed independently of what came after, it’s just a really, really good film.